Connected Engineering and the Systems Mindset – The Backbone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Our world is standing in the midst of what amounts to its fourth industrial revolution. It is rapidly unfolding and begs for a way to manage its impact. The systems mindset holds the promise of shaping the course of the new revolution in a productive way.

The first industrial revolution occurred during the years surrounding the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. It featured the new technologies of water and steam power and was characterized by the transformation of large portions of society from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

The second revolution began in 1870, lasted until WWI and brought about the expansion of the industrial base (steel, oil, and power). The use of electricity changed the primary industrial power supply from a local source model to a distributed system.

The third revolution, which began in the 1980s, saw the evolution from analog electro-mechanical machines into digital technologies. The fourth revolution is blurring the lines between traditional categories of things and processes and people. It is hard to even draw a line between the third and fourth revolutions as the fourth is coming so quickly to fruition.

The potential impact of the fourth revolution, for good and/or ill, is immense. While it is occasioned by technological advances, it has a momentum that is all its own. With it, society is faced not with a choice of whether to opt in or out of it, but one of how to construct its response and shape its direction. The key to bending the impact away from the negative toward the good lies in the systemic consideration of the technologies—their behavior both planned and emergent as well as their results. By using the systems perspective, we can foresee and avoid unintended consequences at the design stage rather than suffering them during implementation.

Because the central core of this revolution is its merger of physical, biological and digital spheres, any effort to influence its course and impact must be grounded in connecting the variety of disciplines that drive the advances and interfaces. We can no longer afford the luxury of operating in technical siloes. We simply must connect across the disciplines and technologies if we are to have any hope of shaping the direction and impact of the fourth industrial revolution.

The only way to get a sufficient hold on the developments of the fourth revolution is to engage them at the systemic level across disciplinary and technological boundaries. Technology is part of a large, over-arching complex system where the operation of emergence drives the results. In products like self-driving automobiles, neuro-inspired learning algorithms combine with sophisticated communications interfaces and highly efficient drive trains to transport their human and inanimate cargo seamlessly within a transportation system.

Manufacturers are developing medical data collection devices capable of gathering clinical quality metrics which can be used for diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of medical conditions. For example, the Omron HeartGuide TM watch uses a small cuff embedded in the band to gather blood pressure and heart rate readings. If the watch were integrated into a healthcare system that could collect the data from the patient, deliver it to the caregiver who could read the data and make adjustments to the treatment regimen that were then pushed back to the patient, it would become a powerful tool for treating serious cardiac problems like arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.

But, that depends on effectively connecting the disciplines required to design the system—cardiologists, electronic engineers, communication specialists, biomedical engineers and more. All of them must be able to communicate and collaborate around the design. There must be a system level design, and that design must include the design thinking from all perspectives.

It is clear that society is not best-served by simply pushing technological developments as far as they will go in any given direction in isolation from the systemic effects and ramifications of that progress. Stuart Russell (author, with Peter Norvig of Google, of the seminal AI textbook, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, in an interview about artificial intelligence in Quanta Magazine, put it this way, “But it’s pretty clear that success [in improving AI] would be an enormous thing. ‘The biggest event in human history’ might be a good way to describe it. And if that’s true, then we need to put a lot more thought than we are doing into what the precise shape of that event might be.”

There are hopeful signs that such a systemic approach and the attendant thought is not only possible but real. The Japanese, driven by an aging and decreasing population with its attendant problems, are choosing to attack it at the societal level. Their “Society 5.0” seeks to harness the promise of a systemic treatment of the advances of the fourth industrial revolution to address the realities of their future.

The INCOSE Fellows, in a re-look at the systems engineering definition, specifically raised the transdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary nature of systems engineering. In so doing, they noted, “Transdisciplinarity is described in Wikipedia as an approach which ‘crosses many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach.’” This emphasis on a holistic approach distinguishes it from cross-disciplinary, which focuses mainly on working across multiple disciplines while allowing each discipline to apply their own methods and approaches. Systems engineering is simultaneously cross-disciplinary and transdisciplinary.” (Systems Engineering and System Definitions, Fellows Initiative on System and Systems Engineering Definitions, International Council on Systems Engineering. December, 2018).

Driven by the ability to make common semantic connections, tools from disparate sectors of the engineering community are providing an avenue across which to integrate critical transdisciplinary design information. Systems metamodels that are already proven to be robust enough to handle a wide variety of system solutions are already building on the power of MBSE to bring the connected engineering environment to the entire system lifecycle.

The path to a successful and valuable fourth industrial revolution is paved with the interdisciplinary connections that will lead us to a real systemic understanding of the emerging technologies and their power. Traversing the journey requires the support of a powerful, proven, and robust systems metamodel embodied in a tool that makes the necessary interdisciplinary connections to create a systemic design fully informed by all the available knowledge. These are the mechanisms through which the revolution can deliver on the promise of the Society 5.0 of the Japanese vision.

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